The Encyclopaedia Britannica was one of the world’s most successful attempts to monetise knowledge. The encyclopaedia started out in 1768 as an Edinburgh-based weekly under the pseudonym “A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland”. Later it expanded into a 32-volume mammoth, with contributors including intellectual luminaries like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud.
Britannica’s commercial stranglehold faded with the advent of more affordable home computers – indeed, the internet age has seen a range of other providers trying to turn knowledge-sharing into an attractive business.
In China the latest sensation is Fenda, a question-and-answer app which means ‘answer in one minute’ in Chinese. Fenda’s premise is that you ask your question and the answer will be delivered in the form of a 60-second voice recording by an expert in the field. Launched last month, it allows internet users to make money by answering or asking questions. Registered users with knowledge to share set a price for their time from a range of Rmb1 (about $0.15) to a few thousand yuan, depending on what they think their expert answers are worth. The curious can also pay a preset price and ask any kind of question (money will be refunded if a question goes unanswered).
Both the questions and the answers are then made publicly available. Part of the fun is listening to what is being asked and answered. Users can ‘eavesdrop’ on replies for Rmb1 and the revenue is split between the askers, the answerers and Fenda.
The WeChat-based app attracted more than a million paying users within its first three days of operation. However, much of its initial appeal seems to stem from public curiosity about Chinese celebrities. For instance, Beijing News says that Wang Sicong, the son of Dalian Wanda’s chairman Wang Jianlin, made more than Rmb200,000 answering 32 questions, including one on his sex life. More than 18,000 people paid Rmb1 to listen to his (somewhat tedious) answers, although TMT Post, a tech-focused news portal, suspects China’s infamous brushers (see WiC327) might have contributed to the remarkable user numbers.
Fenda’s algorithms set the prices for questions directed at more famous respondents. It costs $500 to pose a query to actress Zhang Ziyi, for instance, but this has not deterred her fans from asking questions, many of them about her new life as a mother.
“It’s like you’re getting a little snippet of a WeChat conversation with your favourite movie star,” a columnist wrote at TechinAsia.com.
Not everyone approves of the new service. “Fenda is merely another ATM machine for Chinese celebrities, though it is dressed up as a knowledge-sharing outfit,” TMT Post griped. But Fenda’s fans say that people with genuine knowledge can cash in on their expertise too. For example, a gynaecologist working in a Beijing hospital has been one of the highest earners by taking questions (Rmb128 each) on topics such as period pains.
“People are accustomed to free knowledge sharing but it tends to get mixed results… By putting price tags on answers, relevant and focused knowledge will be more effectively brought to the right person. It’s an upgrade for the consumer,” Ji Shisan, the boss of Zaihang, Fenda’s owner, told ThePaper.cn. Zaihang also operates a knowledge-sharing website called Guokr.com in which users pay an average of Rmb400 for one-on-one Q&As with experts. And Zhihu, China’s answer to Quora, is developing Zhihu Live, offering an invitation-only audience the chance to join discussion sessions online.
Fenda’s fans say that it is tapping into the Chinese culture of self-improvement too. “Tens of thousands of young Chinese people still believe that a book holds a house of gold [a Chinese proverb about the virtue of studying hard],” one user wrote on Zhihu. “The potential of paid knowledge-sharing is very attractive.”
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